Siebel Chair Gift Keeps Giving To Gropp And Illinois CS Researchers
As a young researcher, Bill Gropp worked in a world where scientists with bright ideas could find the funding to explore them before they had any results in hand.
That world has radically changed, Gropp says, requiring researchers to have at least some promising findings before they can secure the money to see their ideas through.
But as the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in Computer Science, Professor Gropp has a tool that lets him sometimes turn back the clock.
The chair gives Gropp money he can use at his discretion to launch the kind of “curiosity-driven research” that he says often leads to truly transformative ideas.
“It’s seed money – incredibly valuable seed money,” said Gropp, who is also director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. “This is what’s really valuable with the resources that come with the chair. It gives you this opportunity to explore without having to wedge it into your grant funding or finding some other way to do it on a shoestring.”
The Siebel Chair in Computer Science was established in 2013 with a $2 million gift from the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation, the charitable organization established by Illinois Computer Science alumnus Thomas Siebel (BA History ’75, MBA ’83, MS CS ’85).
Siebel, who is the chairman and CEO of enterprise software company C3 IoT and before that founded Siebel Systems, is an active philanthropist. The foundation supports efforts related to everything from energy solutions and public health to caring for the homeless.
The Siebel Chair reflects two of Siebel’s other philanthropic passions: research and education.
Discussing his long history of major gifts to the University of Illinois, Siebel told The News-Gazette in 2014 that the guiding philosophy for philanthropy is "Make change happen."
Gropp became the first Siebel Chair after coming to the university from Argonne National Laboratory in 2007. He had a track record of pioneering the kind of change Siebel talked about. Gropp and collaborators designed the Message Passing Interface, or MPI, the standard that is essential to the parallel processing now at the heart of supercomputing.
Gropp came to Illinois Computer Science as the Paul and Cynthia Saylor Professor in Computer Science, a position that provided him with resources and possibilities beyond the typical faculty position.
“Part of having that chair is interacting with these other things,” Gropp said. “I’ve had some really good discussions with Rachel Switzky, the new head of the Siebel Design Center.”
And, in the bottom-line research world Gropp talked about, the chair provided greater financial resources.
“I do have more flexibility in saying I can absolutely afford a student on this for a couple of years. … I just don’t have to worry about it,” Gropp said.
Erin Molloy is one of several students now working on projects started at least in part with money from the Siebel Chair. Molloy is a CS PhD student being advised by both Gropp and Founder Professor of Engineering Tandy Warnow, whose primary research area is bioinformatics and computational biology.
Molloy is working to scale species tree estimation to build out the tree of life, a problem that involves a lot of data, highly parallel computing, and algorithms that produce very precise results.
“The work that Erin is doing I think is going to be really transformative,” Gropp said. “She was sort of marrying the algorithmic work that Tandy does with the high-performance computing work that I do to create new methods for going after very big and very difficult problems.”
Projects like Molloy’s, he said, remind him of work that happens at companies like Google and 3M that give employees time and other resources to – as Gropp likes to say – just explore. Using the 3M example, he points out that Post-it Notes grew out of such freedom.
“We’re lucky enough to have this flexibility, we can still do the curiosity-driven work that often is going to generate the most important ideas, I think,” Gropp said. “People who don’t have to run in the rat race of bringing in the funding don’t understand how much time we now spend chasing funding as opposed to working on developing new ideas.”